Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Fr. Raymond E. Brown on The Genealogy
The Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna c. 1495-1505
I hope to get a chance to post one more time again before Christmas, but if I don’t…
Blessings to all of you this Christmas, and may you have peace in your hearts and in your homes.
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram,
Ram the father of Amminadab. Amminadab became the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon,
Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz became the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. Obed became the father of Jesse,
Jesse the father of David the king. David became the father of Solomon, whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.
Solomon became the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asaph.
Asaph became the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, Joram the father of Uzziah.
Uzziah became the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.
Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amos, Amos the father of Josiah.
Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers at the time of the Babylonian exile.
After the Babylonian exile, Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
Zerubbabel the father of Abiud. Abiud became the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor,
Azor the father of Zadok. Zadok became the father of Achim, Achim the father of Eliud,
Eliud the father of Eleazar. Eleazar became the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah, fourteen generations…
-- Matthew 1: 1-17
Recently I've been looking over a small book by the late, great scripture scholar Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S. (what a great loss was dealt to the Church by his untimely death in 1998) called A Coming Christ in Advent: Essays on the Gospel Narratives Preparing for the Birth of Jesus : Matthew 1 and Luke 1.
I just thought I'd post a few excerpts of his thoughts about The Genealogy of Jesus, where again we see how God works though the human in ways unexpected, and in His ways through people unexpected.
This genealogy that opens Matthew's Gospel has one principal occurrence in liturgy, namely, on the Advent weekday December 17 which begins the pre-Christmas octave of infancy gospel readings. It was read more frequently in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, but often with disastrous results as the priest-celebrant stumbled over names and sometimes skipped large sections, under the pretense that the reading was a boring and meaningless exercise. To the contrary I have been conducting a somewhat solitary campaign to make this Matthean genealogy a major Advent topic, even to the extent that, if I am invited to give a special pre-Christmas sermon, especially on an Advent Sunday, I go out of my way to make Matthew 1:1-17 the subject of the homily. The stunned look on the faces of the parish audience when I launch into the solemn list of begettings is proof that one of the prerequisites for effective preaching has been accomplished…
If a Christian today were asked to tell someone who knows nothing about Christianity the basic story of Jesus Christ, where would he or she be likely to begin? I am willing to wager that not one in ten thousand would begin where the author of the Gospel that the church puts first begins - where the first line of the first page of the New Testament begins-with the majestic assurance: This is "the story of the beginning/the origin/the genesis of Jesus Christ."
For Matthew the origin of Jesus Christ starts with Abraham begetting Isaac! In other words the story of the Hebrew patriarchs, of the kings of Judah, and of other Israelites is the opening stage of the story of Jesus Christ. That such an Old Testament component to the Jesus story would not occur to most Christians today is a sad commentary on how far we have moved from our ancestors' understanding of the good news. Matthew's list of people who are an integral part of the origin of Jesus Christ contains some of the most significant names in the biblical account of God's dealing with His people Israel, and I for one wish strongly that at least once a year their names were allowed to resound in the Christian church on a Sunday when all the worshiping New Testament people of God were there to hear…if one understood it correctly, this genealogy contains the essential theology of the Old and the New Testaments that the whole Church, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant, should proclaim. Let me illustrate this by comments on the three sections of the genealogy.
"The story of the origin of Jesus Christ" begins with the patriarchal period when Abraham begets Isaac. With even a catechism knowledge of Bible stories the hearer might remember with a little puzzlement that Abraham had two sons of whom Ishmael was the older and wonder why the story of the origin of Jesus Christ does not involve the begetting of Ishmael who with his mother Hagar was the more abused figure…
The puzzling "story of the origin of Jesus Christ" goes on with Jacob begetting Judah and his brothers. Why is Judah singled out, and why ultimately is the Messiah from his tribe? Was not Joseph clearly the best of the brothers? Favored by God with visionary dreams that aroused the hatred of the others, Joseph forgave their selling him into captivity in Egypt and saved them when they would have perished from starvation in the famine. Surely he is the embodiment of Jesus' story, not Judah who sold his brother and sought out prostitutes.
Matthew's choice of Isaac over Ishmael, of Jacob over Esau, of Judah over Joseph is faithful to the Old Testament insight that God frequently does not choose the best or the noble or the saintly. In other words, Matthew is faithful to an insight about a God who is not controlled by human merit but manifests His own unpredictable graciousness.
Does not the first section of Matthew's genealogy build up from Abraham to the high point of "David the king"? And does not the second section of the genealogy consist of the gloriously reigning Judean kings of the house of David? The answer to both those questions invokes the basic biblical issue of God's values versus human appearances-"My thoughts are not your thoughts," says the Lord (Is 55:8).
Of the fourteen Judean kings that Matthew lists between David and the deportation only two (Hezekiah and Josiah) could be considered as faithful to God's standards in the law code of Deuteronomy, which were applied to the monarchs by the author of the Books of Kings. The rest were an odd assortment of idolaters, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers, and harem-wastrels.
There was, of course, the arranged murder of Bathsheba's husband so that David might possess the wife legally: Even more indicative of David's shrewd piety was his personal innocence combined with mafia-like politics whereby his relatives murdered opponents for him. He seized Jerusalem, a city that henceforth belonged to him and no tribe, and moved the Ark of the Covenant there to give the blessing of religion to his consolidation of power. Indeed, he succeeded in writing a codicil to God's covenant with His people. Now the covenant no longer simply stated: "You will be my people and I will be your God, if you keep my commandments"; it had an added condition: "and if you have a king of the house of David reigning over you"
This curious story of a Davidic monarchical institution that had divine origins but was frequently corrupt, venal, and uninspiring, was also part of "the story of the origin of Jesus Christ." Yes, that story involved not only individuals with their strengths and weaknesses like the patriarchs, but an institution, an organization, a structure, indeed a hierarchy (literally, in Greek, a sacred order) embodied in absolute rulers… those of us who must be loyal both to the spontaneous grace of God and to a church with authority may get encouragement from this phase of Matthew's theology reflected in the incipient story of Jesus Christ.
THE UNKNOWN AND THE UNEXPECTED
What a curious cast of characters this more genuine progress involves. Except for the first two (Shealtiel and Zerubbabel) and the last two (Joseph and Mary), they are a collection of unknown people whose names never made it into sacred history for having done something significant. In other words, while powerful rulers in the monarchy brought God's people to a low point in recorded history (deportation), unknown people, presumably also proportionately divided among saints and sinners, were the vehicles of restoration. Still another indicator of the unpredictability of God's grace is that He accomplishes His purpose through those whom others regard as unimportant and forgettable.
Looking back at the analysis of Matthew's genealogy that I have just given, we see how extraordinarily comprehensive is its theology of the roots of Jesus' story in the Old Testament. The genealogy is more than retrospective and instructive, however. We must recognize that in acting in Jesus Christ God is consistent with His action in Abraham and David, in the patriarchs, in the kings, and in the unknown. But that is only one aspect of the story of Jesus Christ, a story that has a sequence as well as a beginning; and the ongoing aspects are what makes the genealogy "good news" for Matthew's audience and for us. If the beginning of the story involved as many sinners as saints, so has the sequence. This means not simply a Peter who denied Jesus or a Paul who persecuted him, but sinners and saints among those who would bear his name throughout the ages. If we realize that human beings have been empowered to preserve, proclaim, and convey the salvation brought by Jesus Christ throughout ongoing history, the genealogy of the sequence of Jesus contains as peculiar an assortment of people as did the genealogy of the beginnings. The God who wrote the beginnings with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the impure as well as the pure, men to whom the world hearkened and women upon whom the world frowned-this God continues to work through the same melange. If it was a challenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew's genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus Christ, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the unknown characters of today are an essential part of the sequence. A sense of being unimportant and too insignificant to contribute to the continuation of the story of Jesus Christ in the world is belied by the genealogy, and the proclamation of that genealogy in the Advent liturgy is designed to give us hope about our destiny and our importance. The message of the genealogy is an enabling invitation. The genealogy has also taught us that God did not hesitate to entrust to a monarchical institution an essential role in the story of His Son's origins-an authoritative institution (at times authoritarian) which He guaranteed with promises lest it fail but which was frequently led by corrupt, venal, stupid, and ineffective leaders, as well as sometimes by saints. He has not hesitated to entrust the sequence of the story to a hierarchically structured church, guaranteed with promises, but not free from its own share of the corrupt, the venal, the stupid, and the ineffective….
By stressing the all-powerful grace of God, the genealogy presents its greatest challenge to those who will accept only an idealized Jesus Christ whose story they would write only with straight lines and whose portrait they would paint only in pastel colors. If we look at the whole story and the total picture, the genealogy teaches us that the beginning was not thus; the Gospels teach us that his ministry was not thus; the history of the church teaches us the sequence was not thus. That lesson is not a discouragement but an encouragement as we look forward to the liturgical coming of Christ. God's grace can work even with people like us. A meditation on "The story of the origin of Jesus Christ-Abraham fathered Isaac . . . Jesse fathered David the king . . . Achim fathered Eliud"- should convince reader and hearer that the authentic "story of the sequence of Jesus Christ" is that Jesus called Peter and Paul . . . Paul called Timothy . . . someone called you . . . and you must call someone else.